Priest, teacher get prison in sex abuse case

The Rev. Charles Engelhardt will serve 6 to 12 years in prison.
The Rev. Charles Engelhardt will serve 6 to 12 years in prison.
Posted: June 14, 2013

Even as they professed their innocence, a Catholic priest and an ex-parochial schoolteacher got long prison terms Wednesday in the serial sexual assault of a 10-year-old altar boy in the late 1990s.

Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler exceeded sentencing guidelines in handing out punishment to the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, 66, and Bernard Shero, 50, saying their crimes called for long terms. She sentenced Engelhardt to six to 12 years in prison and Shero to eight to 16.

The sentences stunned the standing-room-only crowd that filled her courtroom.

Engelhardt's frown grew longer as it became clear that Ceisler would not impose probation - served in a Maryland home for old, ailing priests - as urged by lawyer Michael McGovern.

Shero, who knew he faced a mandatory minimum five-year term, stood in shock, and attorney Burton A. Rose put a hand on his arm to steady him.

In the gallery, members of Engelhardt's family began weeping loudly, and court staff ordered them to leave.

"We're not allowed to cry?" said Engelhardt's niece Tracey Wilbekaitis.

Ceisler said she felt the state sentencing guidelines were too low. "The guidelines," she said, "shock my conscience and my sense of justice."

McGovern and Rose told the judge they would appeal.

Engelhardt insisted he had no memory of meeting the former altar boy who said the priest raped him when he was a child. He denied assaulting him.

"I have accepted this injustice and will continue to do so until it is righted," said Engelhardt, "as I believe it will be righted."

Shero, usually quiet and often weeping at trial, was suddenly pugnacious. He berated Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos for "twisting the facts," and challenged her: "Go ahead, I know you want to say something, go ahead."

Ceisler cut Shero off, telling him he was "out of line."

Shero's mother, Bonita, pleaded for mercy, telling Ceisler her son had been born with congenital cataracts and has had 23 surgeries that left him with limited sight in one eye.

Shero's thick glasses and his need to get close when he talks made him a target for bullies - and the victim in this case, she said.

Manos angrily dismissed the defense arguments, saying the jury believed the victim: "They just didn't like the verdict."

Engelhardt, a priest for 45 years, was found guilty of child endangerment, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault. The jury deadlocked on a count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

Shero was found guilty of all charges: rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, child endangerment, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault.

Engelhardt had reason to hope for a lesser sentence. Earlier, Ceisler granted McGovern's motion to acquit Engelhardt of conspiracy, a count on which he was found guilty.

Engelhardt and Shero were originally charged in the assaults along with another priest, Edward V. Avery.

Prosecutors alleged that the boy had been sexually assaulted and passed from Engelhardt to Avery to Shero when he was in fifth and sixth grades at St. Jerome's parish school.

Avery, now 70 and defrocked, pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 21/2 to 5 years in prison.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joeslobo.

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